When finance minister Arun Jaitley announced in his budget speech this year a commemoration of 200 years of Paika rebellion, not many outside Orissa would have heard about it before. Among the first armed uprisings against the British East India Company, it never found its place in history books where 1857 is the officially recognised as the first war of independence.
“Two hundred years ago, in 1817, a valiant uprising of soldiers led by Buxi Jagabandhu (Bidyadhar Mohapatra) took place in Khurda. We will commemorate the same appropriately,” Jaitley had said. Recognition of the Paika rebellion at the national level brought much cheer to Orissa—and was welcomed even by chief minister Naveen Patnaik.
Less than two months later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi felicitated at Bhubaneswar’s Raj Bhavan descendants of 16 families associated with the rebellion. He was in Orissa to attend the Bharatiya Janata Party’s April 15-16 national executive. The venue was strategically chosen: the party is making a big push to mop up the unconquered parts of eastern India. Orissa, West Bengal, Tripura and the remaining states of the Northeast still form territory where the BJP is yet to create a firm imprint.
Among those honoured by Modi was Upasana Mohapatra, daughter of late Congress leader Lalatendu (Lulu) Bidyadhar Mohapatra, a descendant of Buxi Jagabandhu. Lulu’s elder brother Lalitendu was also present at the function. Both Upasana and Lalitendu had earlier announced their intention of joining politics, and the buzz in Bhubaneswar is that the BJP would be their natural destination.
“If that happens, the BJP’s appropriation of Paika rebellion will be complete,” says a worried leader of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD). “The way the party has been usurping and using local iconography is incredible. This could give a boost to the BJP in coastal Orissa, especially Bhubaneswar and Puri, where the CM is strong, thanks to his father Biju Patnaik’s legacy.”
Soon after Jaitley’s Budget speech mention of Paika, the CM had jumped into it. As in other states, the BJP had again managed to set the terms with a buzzphrase that other parties could not ignore and forced them to follow it. Two weeks before the national executive, Patnaik wrote to railway minister Suresh Prabhu demanding an express train in the name of Baxi Jagabandhu.
In 1817, Buxi Jagabandhu led a soldiers uprising in Khurda. The BJP has now sensed political gains in Orissa’s Paika rebellion.
It is not just the Paika revolt the BJP has laid claim to—it has refined cooptive symbolism into an art form, and a whole litany of highly resonant names are available for the picking. Take the renaming of the venue where the national executive members gathered. Out went the insipid ‘Janata Grounds’—it was now the Bhima Bhoi grounds. This was after the 19th-century adivasi Oriya poet, who wrote songs against social injustice and caste discrimination. Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who is emerging as BJP’s face for Orissa, says the saint-poet’s unique ideology is followed by crores in Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
The choice of an adivasi who followed the bhakti marga is interesting in itself; by invoking him, the BJP wants to regain its footprint in the mineral-rich but impoverished western Orissa or Kosal region that comprises 23 per cent of tribal population. Kalahandi, which was once a byword for famine, falls here. So does Niyamgiri, whose Dongria Kondh people are a subgroup of the Kondh tribe to which Bhima Boi belonged. Their struggle for rights over the Niyamgiri hills sits ill at ease with both the state and Centre, which recently named two NGOs allied to the cause as pro-Maoist.
Orissa CM Naveen Patnaik is busy countering the BJP gauntlet
The BJP, however, is eyeing the numbers. If Orissa’s Dalit population (17 per cent) is added to the adivasi numbers, together they constitute 40 per cent of the state’s population. It is not surprising that party president Amit Shah reached Bhubaneswar one day before the national executive, on April 14, and paid tribute to B.R. Ambedkar on his birth anniversary—the first thing after landing there. He later joined state party colleagues in celebrating the Oriya new year.
Dr Ajit Kumar Sahoo of Utkal University says invoking Oriya pride and subnationalism is all about politics. “It is about symbolism, about trying to bring marginalised sections into the mainstream. It seems like a well-thought out plan to get a foothold in the state,” he says. The state government is doing the same, Sahoo adds, as no party wants to miss out on whatever little political mileage they can eke out. The symbolism around Paika, for instance, is of limited value, says Sahoo. “The Paiks were a martial community and not homogeneous. They were limited to the coastal princely areas. The benefit of commemorating them may be limited to the coastal belt,” he explains.
For the BJP, it never really had a base in coastal Orissa, a local leader explains. The BJP was strong in the Kosal region till the time it was in alliance with the BJD. “When we were in government together between 2000 and 2009, the BJD was strong in coastal areas while the BJP held Kosal. However, after the split, the BJD spread itself west too, edging out the BJP. It does not appear that difficult for us to make inroads again,” he says.
It’s clear from the 34 per cent votes it polled in local elections in March that the BJP has managed to form a base in rural and some urban areas of the state. The party has now emerged as the clear challenger to the BJD, with the Congress relegated to the periphery in Orissa politics. Pradhan says it’s a strong starting point to build on, working towards a final victory in 2019, when the state goes to polls. Riding on Modi’s ‘man of steel’ image and welfarist politics, the BJP is pitching itself as the one to take Orissa beyond the horrific images of famine and poverty—encapsulated recently by the image of adivasi Dana Majhi, who walked 12 km carrying the body of his wife, accompanied by his distraught daughter.
“Orissa has become a laboratory for the pro-poor policies and welfare agenda of the Modi government,” Pradhan says, giving details of how the state has benefited with greater devolution of powers under the 14th Finance Commission. “More national highways are being constructed in the state and central allocations for rural housing is at an all-time high. The BJP will become the natural party of governance in the state by 2019,” he says.
If the optics at the national executive were anything to go by, the optimism does not appear misplaced. Bhubaneswar was bedecked with larger-than-life cutouts of Modi and Shah, with party flags fluttering all over. “Shah’s politics is as much about psychological warfare as traditional strategy,” a senior BJP leader from the region tells Outlook. “The takeover of Bhubaneswar by the BJP is as much a signal to Patnaik as a confidence-booster for the cadres. The atmosphere of confidence also attracts leaders from other parties to the BJP. This will gradually make BJP the only viable party in the country.”
Senior BJD leader Tathagata Satpathy, who is the party’s chief whip in the Lok Sabha, recently caused a stir when he, in a series of tweets, accused the BJP of trying to engineer an “AIADMK-type split” in his party. He referred to an MP who was trying to swing the deal for the BJP. Though the 61-year-old politician named no one, his younger party colleague Baijayant Panda chose to respond in a sarcastic, emoji-riddled tweet, revealing the fault-lines within the party.
On its part, the BJP is not underestimating Patnaik, who has won four consecutive elections and is in power for 17 years. The suave, soft-spoken politician is a formidable leader, who seems to have accepted the gauntlet thrown by the BJP—and is trying to reinvent himself. He recently posted his first-ever selfie, taken with kids who had fought off a crocodile. Whether he will be able to fight off the BJP’s seemingly inexorable march is anyone’s guess as of now.
By Bhavna Vij-Aurora in Bhubaneswar